Christian Hegner, Director-General of FOCA ©BAZL
Swiss airspace is one of the most complex airspaces anywhere in the world. In contrast to our top ratings in other areas, it’s nothing to be proud about. How has it come to this?
There are two aspects to the complexity of our airspace. When Eurocontrol talks about complexity in its performance review reports, it primarily means the complexity caused by air traffic. However, Switzerland lies at the geographical centre of Europe and therefore in the midst of a number of major airports. That’s why our country is crossed by so many aircraft, often either climbing or descending.
If we look closer at this airspace, we find a complexity of our own making, namely the configuration of our airspace structure. A good example of this is the airspace structure that protects air traffic around Zurich airport, which has evolved over decades. Again and again, new user requirements have been integrated into the existing structure and, as a result, that structure has become ever more convoluted. Everyone now agrees that such an incremental way of doing things is no longer possible. In the last few attempts at change, the lowest common denominator was so low that only emotions, and not improvements, were the result.
That is why Avistrat-CH is a radical departure from this process, as the new solution is not designed to build on what already exists. Instead, a new system based exclusively on current and future user requirements is to be created.
And yet Swiss aviation is safe. So how come it needs restructuring at all?
Yes, Swiss aviation is safe, and all the local pilots are very competent. However, there are already indicators that pressure on the aviation system is increasing and safety margins are decreasing. There has therefore been a marked increase in the number of airspace infringements in recent years – mostly by pilots unfamiliar with the airspace.
In the medium term, the system will continue to be stretched by continually rising traffic volumes and the emergence of new user groups such as drones. That’s why we must make a start today on building a new system.
Yes, the “Avistrat-CH”. How did this project come about, and what exactly does it involve?
It is well known that airspace has been the subject of discussion for a long time. In the middle of 2016, the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation was awarded the Avistrat-CH order by the Swiss Federal Department of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications DETEC. Insisting on the importance, Swiss Federal Councillor Doris Leuthard announced the project at the Aviation Congress in November 2016.
One important difference between this proposal and earlier proposals is that this time it is not only about airspace, but also about aviation infrastructure – for example, the airports. Even this infrastructure is not a given, but it will be one of the strategic considerations.
So we really are starting on a new page in this respect.
Swiss Federal Councillor Doris Leuthard described Avistrat-CH as “the project of the century”. To what extent is that an accurate description?
To pre-empt this becoming a running gag, let me say this: it certainly won’t be a hundred years before it is implemented!
I think that, on the one hand, whilst Ms. Leuthard’s description expresses the fact that the project does indeed present a few challenges – such as, for example, having to take contradictory user requirements into account – on the other hand, a great deal is expected of the project: after all, what ultimately matters is that Switzerland’s aviation system, which is also of economic importance, is made fit for the future.
And with a time-horizon of 2035 having been set, we can certainly talk about a “project of a generation” – the project of an entire generation, for the generation of the future.
What will Avistrat-CH bring to the next generation? What are the objectives of the project?
DETEC has also specified the project’s two overarching aims: firstly, that the aviation system should remain at least as safe as it is today, even against a background of the challenges described above. Simplification will help a great deal here.
Secondly, given that it is important that Switzerland’s very limited resource of airspace be used as efficiently as possible, this means not to “waste” any airspace thanks to a “flexible use”.
We’re currently experiencing the start of rapid technological development. This will require us, but also soon enable us, to meet new demands and integrate new users such as drones, near-space flights, power-generating kite devices, etc. into the system. At the moment, these experimental activities are dependent on individual grants and permits. In the very near future, they will be part of standard practice and even more opportunities for innovation will open up.
Experience has shown that there are always two sides to every coin: which one’s “tails” here?
It’s already the case that demand for Switzerland’s limited airspace is outstripping supply. From time to time it becomes necessary to set priorities, as they are in fact already set in law. Our great ambition here is for our priorities always to be set with the public interest and the principle of “give and take” in mind, and for them to be understandable to all.
Also, the simplification of airspace structure and aviation infrastructure will give us more room to play – the cake will get bigger, so to speak. For example, it is possible to imagine, in simplified terms, concentric circles drawn around the airports, and connections between those circles. That airspace would be controlled, and its use strictly regulated. Outside those areas, however, the airspace would not be controlled. This simplification – also combined with advanced navigation and identification options – will enable us to get far more out of the system than we do today. This would make skyguide’s job easier, and it could use its capacities in other ways.
In my opinion, therefore, there is no “tails” or “down” side to this particular coin. I’m convinced that with Avistrat-CH we can create a system that is better for all users than the current one.
The problems in relation to airspace and aviation infrastructure are, of course, known, and certain solutions have been under discussion for a long time. So why couldn’t the Federal Office of Civil Aviation simply rule on the matter?
We are convinced that we can only come up with the best solution in collaboration with the other stakeholders. They can bring so much knowledge and experience to the project that the FOCA cannot. When the situation is viewed in this way, surely it would be wrong for a solution to be developed in isolation and then simply enforced?
Collaboration with all these stakeholders has, in fact, worked very well so far, and we are convinced that we can work out a future-proof solution in this way. Naturally, the Confederation will have to take a formal decision, which will then be binding for everybody, on any jointly devised basis.
At what stage are we with the project, and how is it progressing?
The above-mentioned collaboration with the stakeholders has got off to a productive start. During the first half of 2018, we first conducted a web-based survey on the expectations of the stakeholders regarding inclusion in the Avistrat-CH programme, and then, in numerous workshops, collected data on user’s needs. And thanks to the enormous scope and transparency of this process, we believe it is safe to say that no-one was left out.
What is important here is that we have surveyed needs, rather than requirements. That’s what Henry Ford did over a hundred years ago. People needed to get from A to B more quickly: Ford developed the Model T, and they did not just harness an additional horse to the carriage.
Our task now is to derive a vision from these users’ needs. This vision will describe what the future system will be able to offer, without pre-empting a solution.
Work on solutions comes after the vision has been created, that is to say in the strategic development phase. This is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020, and then the first implementation projects will be able to start.
How will coordination with adjacent countries work?
We are in contact with countries working on similar projects – primarily the United Kingdom and the Netherlands – in order to benefit from their experience.
Actual coordination with adjacent countries will only become relevant when solutions are beginning to emerge.
What needs to happen for Avistrat-CH to be a success? How can skyguide actually contribute?
As already intimated, the crucial factor in the achievement of success is cooperation between all stakeholders. Skyguide has something to contribute here, as have all other stakeholders. We shall of course be counting on their considerable expertise and international horizons. Skyguide’s experts must inspire us and do their utmost to assure clarity: an airspace is either controlled or not controlled. Hybrid solutions often only create a false sense of security.
I’m convinced that together we shall be able to come up with a future-proof solution – if we take all the needs seriously and move forward in a structured and transparent way.